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The Deadlocked City

The idea of rebuilding the Temple on its ancient site lay dormant until the 1967 war. It suddenly surfaced after the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. Israeli paratroopers hoisted the national flag over the sacred rock—now enclosed in a great mosque—on which many layers of meaning had accumulated from the days of Abraham to Mohammed, who is said to have ascended to heaven from it. Then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan quickly spotted the flag and ordered that it be removed. He ordered the troops to evacuate the sacred enclosure and hand it back to its Muslim attendants. That same day, the chief rabbi of the Israeli army, Shlomo Goren, an officer with the rank of major general, gave a first inkling of the difficulties of enforcing Dayan’s wise order in the future. Much like Sharon thirty-three years later, Goren strode onto the Haram accompanied by singing acolytes and blowing a ritual shofar. He was reprimanded. The Arabs were then too cowed to do anything. According to another major general, Uzi Narkiss, the officer commanding the Israeli troops, the following conversation, which is quoted by Wasserstein, took place that day between him and Goren:

Goren: Uzi, this is the time to put a hundred kilograms of explosives under the Mosque of Omar—and that’s it, we’ll get rid of it once and for all.
Narkiss: Rabbi, stop it!
Goren: You’ll enter the history books by virtue of this deed.
Narkiss: I have already recorded my name in the pages of the history of Jerusalem.

Dr. Zerah Warhaftig, the Israeli minister of religious affairs, whom I interviewed two weeks later, told me that legally speaking the Temple Mount had been Jewish property since the days of King David, who had “paid the full price for it (fifty silver shekels) to Araunah the Jebusite.” But he was a patient man, he added with a smile, ready to hold off from actually taking possession until the coming of the Messiah.

We are fortunate, the minister told me, that the Talmud forbids Jews to enter the Temple Mount since their ritual uncleanliness can be overcome only with the ashes of a red cow, a rare species, now extinct. This saved Israel from unnecessary troubles with the Arabs. Others had less wisdom than this old-fashioned, Orthodox, but dovish politician, who was known for his moderation. Scuffles between the Muslim guards and both secular and religious Israelis started soon after. In August 1967, on the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70, Major General Goren reentered the Mount with a Torah scroll, an ark, and a pulpit. He set up a provisional synagogue between the Dome and the mosque of al-Aqsa and held a prayer service. The Israeli police failed to stop him, although some tried to do so. Other policemen were later said to have joined in the prayer service.

Not long after, Major General Goren resigned from the army and was appointed chief rabbi of Israel. In Israel, where Orthodox Judaism is the state religion, this is a government post. Goren immediately ordered the removal of signs placed by Dr. Warhaftig at the entrance to the Temple Mount warning Jews that Talmudic law forbade them to enter the precinct. Goren’s appointment endowed the High Rabbinate with a political militancy it had lacked until then.2 As chief rabbi, Goren contested Warhaftig’s view that the Temple Mount was out of bounds for Orthodox Jews, arguing that large parts of the Haram were not “as sacred” to the Muslims as they were to the Jews and should be made available for building a synagogue. In a particularly provocative statement he claimed the Muslims themselves attested to this by taking their shoes off only inside the two mosques but not on the surrounding platform.

Starting in the late 1960s, clashes and fistfights between Palestinians and Israelis became more frequent around the Temple Mount. Young followers of Meir Kahane wearing T-shirts saying “The People of Israel Lives” painted Stars of David on the outside walls of mosques and yelled obscenities through the narrow lanes leading to the Haram. In the Old City an institute was set up devoted to rebuilding the Temple; it included a training center for priests who would eventually perform animal sacrifices on the Temple Mount. The venture was richly funded by American Christian fundamentalists, American Jewish donors, and secretly, on at least one occasion, by the Israeli government.

The Arab municipality of the former Jordanian sector was dismantled and the Palestinian mayor was expelled to Jordan. His former counselors refused to join the Israeli municipal council under Mayor Teddy Kollek. Adjacent to the Wailing Wall, the residents of an entire Muslim quarter were expelled overnight without compensation. With Kollek’s wholehearted approval, their houses were razed to make way for a vast plaza. One reporter, Herbert Pundik of the Hebrew daily Davar, told the mayor he thought it outrageous to turn the relatively intimate place where prayers had been offered for hundreds of years into “a vast, noisy Piazza del Popolo” where nationalist Israeli rallies were soon to be held and army recruits sworn in. Kollek disagreed. “It was the best thing we did,” he said. In a vein characteristic of the new mood he added: “The old place had a galut [diaspora] character; it was a place for wailing. This made sense in the past. It isn’t what we want to do in the future.”

Two years after the 1967 war, a deranged Australian fundamentalist Christian successfully set fire to al-Aqsa mosque, proclaiming that the removal of the mosque would bring about the millennium. The fire caused extensive damage and destroyed precious twelfth-century works of art. In the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem protesters took to the streets. In 1982, an equally deranged American, a “born-again” Jew named Alan Harry Goodman, wearing an Israeli uniform and armed with an M-16 automatic rifle, shot his way into the Dome of the Rock. He was a volunteer serving in the Israeli army, which had issued him his gun. His aim, he announced, was to “liberate” the Mount and become king of the Jews. Riots over this bloody deed spread to faraway Muslim countries in Asia and Africa and lasted intermittently for several weeks. Jewish fundamentalists eager to assert Israel’s historical “sovereign rights” continued to seek access to the Temple Mount. The higher courts upheld government efforts to keep them out.

They were not always successful. The cause of the transgressors was taken up by Likud and other secular politicians farther to the right. Protected by parliamentary immunity, they were able to organize political demonstrations on the Mount with impunity. Several underground conspiracies to force the issue by a spectacular act of destruction were successfully uncovered by the police. Some conspirators were caught red-handed, or on the very eve of an attempt to blow up the Temple Mount. Others merely tried to force their way in and lay the “cornerstone” of the new Temple. Some tried to renew the ancient practice of animal sacrifices. The courts gave the conspirators lenient prison sentences for hoarding explosives and related offenses. Some of them were prominent figures in the new settlements across the old demarcation line. The most flagrant received life sentences which, however, were quickly commuted. Prominent Likud politicians, including the former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, successfully petitioned the president to commute sentences; the worst among them were given amnesty by President Chaim Herzog—a member of the Labor Party—and set free.


The annexation of the former Jordanian sector of Jerusalem was never recognized by the United States or any other country, though US protests softened over the years, grew rare, and successive US presidents went through the ritual of promising during their election campaigns to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. In Israel itself, after the victory in a war named for the “six days” of creation, popular support for the annexation was nearly unanimous. Politically active Israelis, notoriously divided on most other issues, never seemed more united than on this one. The annexation was widely described as a moral and historical right, Israel’s “manifest destiny.” The Arabs and the rest of the world, it was said, would just have to learn to live with it. Only two men in the governing national coalition cabinet dissented, Salman Aranne, a Labor minister of education, and the dovish National-Religious minister of interior, Moshe Shapiro. Both voted in the cabinet against ordering the army to occupy the Jordanian sector in response to the sporadic shelling. Both did so out of fear that occupation would cause endless conflict and difficulty in the future. But they kept their votes secret; they became publicly known only after they died.

The annexation of East Jerusalem was one of the most popular acts of the Israeli government. In June 1967, Gershom Schocken, the editor-in-chief of the independent, liberal newspaper Ha’aretz, scolded the government for not formally annexing East Jerusalem sooner. (Today the same paper favors withdrawal from most of the West Bank and from much of East Jerusalem and advocates giving the Palestinians sovereignty over the Temple Mount.) In the summer of 1967 not only Schocken, who was both publisher and editor, but also most of his staff were overcome by the euphoria of a victory that was stunning, unexpected, and seemingly complete. I remember a meeting of the editorial board, perhaps a week after the cease-fire. Schocken loudly vented his impatience at the government’s delays and hesitation. “Cowards! What on earth are they waiting for!” he said. Jordanian Jerusalem and its hinterland must be annexed immediately. Tomorrow could be too late.

The most junior among the assembled senior editors ventured an opinion that the Palestinians could not be forced to become Israelis against their will. They had the same right of national self-determination as the Jews. Another staff member, an aging survivor of the Weimar Republic and a specialist on constitutional law, observed that the planned annexation ran counter to the laws of war and international conventions Israel had signed. Both were shouted down by their colleagues. Opinion was similar in all the other dailies except the Communist Kol Ha’am, a low-circulation paper with no public following except perhaps—for nationalistic rather than Marxist reasons—among Israel’s Arab community.

With very few exceptions, the literary establishment—led by the Nobel Prize winner in literature, S.Y. Agnon, and nearly all the best-known novelists, poets, and playwrights—lent their full support to the extremist manifesto, issued by the new Greater Israel Movement, calling for the immediate annexation not only of Arab Jerusalem but of all occupied territories, including the Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights, and the entire West Bank. An exception was the young novelist Amos Oz. After walking through the narrow lanes of the Old City of Jerusalem he told an interviewer that he felt he was in a “foreign city” (Ir z’ara). Only three prominent members of the academic community spoke up at this stage against all annexations. The biophysicist Yeshayahu Leibowitz—an Orthodox Jew—ridiculed the cult of the Wailing Wall as pagan stone-worship. He believed that the planned annexations would turn Israel into a “police state.” He was followed by the historians Yehoshua Arieli and Yehoshua Talmon. Talmon said that the experience of the French in Algeria should serve as a warning that Israelis might become as brutalized and corrupted as many of the pieds noirs, who tried to rule over an alien people against its will.

  1. 2

    Last year, the current chief rabbi caused an international incident by thanking the Pope in his presence for recognizing greater Jerusalem, including the Palestinian parts, as Israel’s national capital “united for all eternity,” something the Pope had been very careful not to do.

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